After all, my maternal grandmother’s kitchen in the Bronx bubbled with magic at nearly every hour. While the stovetop brewed hearty pots of tomato sauce, minestrone and pig’s feet, the counter held only a small bowl filled with water. To the untrained eye it was nothing special; in fact, the bowl looked like any other culinary accessory.
But I knew better. My grandmother had already whispered her secret prayers and dropped two or three beads of olive oil into the water. What formed on the clear surface had surely revealed the presence of malocchio, commonly known as “the evil eye.” After identifying the ill intent, matches were lit and salt was sprinkled. Bad vibes vanished. It always worked.
This form of old-world divination was one of many esoteric practices I witnessed in childhood. There were herbal infusions to bless the doorways of a new home, incantations to expedite healing and silent hand gestures that kept evil at bay. A bundle of pepperoncini — long red peppers — was hung near the kitchen windows to deflect negativity. A pouch filled with basil leaves and rose petals was placed on the table of a newlywed couple (preferably between two glasses of red wine) to keep love strong. My grandfather made wine in the basement of our home but consulted the moon’s phase before mashing a single grape.
The folk magic my grandparents practiced was, to them, an extension of their Roman Catholic faith. They didn’t think of it as witchcraft, nor did they view themselves witches. But, like modern-day witches, they relied on their magic and smiled when it manifested repeatedly in the mundane world around them. It was both normal and necessary. As immigrants, they didn’t readily trust American culture and the arcane rites performed in the kitchen provided comfort and safety. Streetlights didn’t protect you on the long walk to work in the predawn darkness; two cloves of garlic tied with red string did.
In Southern Italy, nearly every village had a wise person who stepped in when the local priest’s prayers failed. It was a kind of spiritual contingency plan. Angels and saints are busy beings, and certain problems require immediate attention. That’s where magic became a necessary tool. Even in the isolated mountain towns of Caserta, north of Naples from where my grandparents hailed, people needed money, jobs, and remedies. They also pined for good luck and romance. A visit to the mago or maga, male or female wise person, didn’t always ensure a happy ending, but it kindled hope. For those trapped by the rigid edicts of Catholicism or the struggles of local town life, it was a lesson in self-empowerment. Perhaps that’s why folk magic has always been an oral tradition: Its effects, so visceral, can only be communicated eye-to-eye and heart to heart.
By the time I turned 18, I was well-versed in the old ways and eager to embrace new ones. My path took me from college campus covens to traditional Wiccan circles. I invoked the goddess Hecate at a moonlit crossroads, worshiped the Horned God in the forest and summoned spirits at seances. While each experience was profoundly moving, I struggled to reconcile the folk magic of my childhood with the modern Wicca of my adulthood. Italian folk magic is a practice steeped in secrecy and Roman Catholic symbolism. Wicca is a burgeoning religion that recognizes divinity in our everyday world.
Then, a few of years ago, I had an epiphany. On Halloween, the Pagan festival known as Samhain, I was standing at my kitchen sink filling yet another bowl with water. As I reached for salt and a bottle of olive oil, it struck me that I’d spent the previous two weeks responding to a steady stream of pleas from friends who needed a little magical intervention. Somewhere in between making the sign of the cross and reciting an incantation to Diana, I realized that I was at an intersection, one with resonance in our society.
I was standing at the busy corner where old customs and modern rituals converge. It didn’t matter if I petitioned a saint or a goddess, if I folded my hands in prayer or lifted my arms to the moonlight. The craft of magic is about taking action, and like the folk practitioners before me, I couldn’t worry about the details. I simply had to do the work. Past or present, witches get stuff done.
Today, people are especially eager for a taste of the enchanted. From protection spells to charms for inner peace, the practice of witchcraft appears to be thriving in America. Occult shops are flourishing and catering to a wider, diversified clientele. Witch-themed books are prominent on many store shelves. The Pew Research Center suggested in 2014 that there are as many as 1.5 million Americans who practice Wicca or identify as witches. Popular culture, replete with a reboot of “The Craft,” endless retellings of the Salem Witch Trials, and the timeless fascination with a wizard called Harry, adds to this enthusiasm.
The rising numbers reflect a collective thirst for something — not answers, necessarily, but experience. People want to feel a numinous imprint in their lives. The mystical mind-set has gone mainstream because there has never been a time when we’ve needed magic more. Fortunately, a witch’s day has no end.
Antonio Pagliarulo is a novelist and the author of two books on modern witchcraft and Wicca.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece included the wrong location for Caserta.